— We’ll have two first time winners at the Australian Open: Venus Williams and Andy Murray. For Williams the 10th time will prove the charm Down Under while for Murray he will take the title in his fourth appearance in Melbourne.
Physically Venus played through a whole year in 2008 and so that is a good sign for 2009. She won Wimbledon last summer and then the Tour Championships at the end of the year. She played very solid tennis in the Tour Championships and had to come up with good wins, including victories over Dinara Safina, Jelena Jankovic and her sister Serena. Venus had never won the Tour Championship before so that meant a lot to her and primed her for a strong 2009.
In her career Venus is 32-9 at the Australian Open. She has made the semifinals once (2001) and the quarterfinals four times, including last year when she fell to Ana Ivanovic.
With defending champion Maria Sharapova not playing due to rehab from a shoulder injury, sister Serena could pose the top threat to Venus. They both are in the bottom half of the draw with Serena seeded second and Venus seeded sixth so they could meet up in the semifinals.
Serena’s won this major three times and who can forgot her dramatic drive to the title just two years ago. She showed me she is motivated for Melbourne by playing in Sydney this week where she got in some good preparation before losing in the semifinals to Elena Dementieva – in a match that Serena felt she gave away due to making many errors. Getting some good match play under her belt can only be advantageous to Serena going into Melbourne. I don’t know if there’s a certain magic to Serena at the Australian Open but she just seems to play so well in this hardcourt major.
I’m not retiring the Williams sisters but with Venus 28 and Serena 27 I’m sure that at least the thought has crossed their minds that they don’t have a decade left on tour. Venus says she wants to play for years to come and she’s quite capable of doing that but both sisters realize they are closer to end of their careers than to the beginning. And that could provide them with extra incentive in the years to come.
Jankovic is the top seed and coming into 2009 she is way more prepared than she was entering 2008 when she was coming off sinus surgery, didn’t have much practice time under her belt and wasn’t at her top fitness level. She’s been working with a fitness trainer and may well be in the best shape of her life. She even went to Mexico to train in high altitude. This will be her seventh Australian Open with her best performance coming last year when she made the semifinals before losing to Sharapova.
Safina is the third seed and watch out for her. She showed last year a transformation in that she relished taking on the top players. She had a super six month stretch to where she rose to No. 2 in the rankings. She's much more fit and more confident and loaded with potential. No doubt she is a genuine contender to take the title Down Under.
Ivanovic is fifth-seeded but last week she lost to Amelie Mauresmo in Brisbane and her confidence is not at where it was when she won the French Open last year and got to No. 1 in the rankings. She didn’t handle the pressure of being top ranked in the world very well.
Darkhorses to make runs are Dementieva, who has won tournaments in Sydney and Auckland the last two weeks, 13th seeded Victoria Azarenka of Belarus, who is on the rise and who won the title in Brisbane earlier this month, and the No. 11 seed Caroline Wozniacki, who took Serena to match point in Sydney.
On the men’s side Murray along with Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and defending champion Novak Djokovic are the four contenders who stand tall above all others. It would be very surprising if the champion did not come from this group and I’m picking Murray whose bright, brilliant game is off to a soaring start in 2009, one which includes two wins already over Federer. Murray is 5-2 vs. the Swiss master in his career.
When Murray, who is seeded fourth in Melbourne, beat Nadal at last year’s U.S. Open, he elevated his game to a new level because he beat someone of that stature in a major. He was very physical, erasing the knock on him that he wasn’t strong enough. He has always been a supreme tactician on the court, knowing when to hit the ball harder or when to soften up a shot and when to hit for depth or go for the angles. His serve has much more pace and he comes into Melbourne loaded with confidence.
Federer, second seeded behind Nadal, won the Australian Open in 2004, 2006 and 2007. Before last year Federer was super human and 99.9 percent of the players on the ATP Tour would love to have achieved what Federer did in 2008.
He got to the semifinals of the Australian Open, lost in the finals at the French Open and Wimbledon and won the U.S. Open. In my opinion, Federer’s dominance – where he was so much better than everyone else – is over. What happened is Nadal, Murray and Djokovic raised the level of their games because Federer’s dominance made them do so. Federer can still win majors but he won’t do so as often as earlier in his career.
Nadal is trying to become the first Spaniard to ever win the Australian Open. Last year in Melbourne he lost in the semifinals to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. That was an absolutely amazing match to watch as Tsonga combined extreme power and extreme finesse to send Nadal home. The key for Nadal, who took off the last two and half months of 2008 to rest his knees, is whether he’ll have enough matches under his belt to make a strong run in this major. Nadal played an exhibition as well as the tournament in Doha, where he lost to Gael Monfils in the third round.
The third-seeded Djokovic is coming off an incredible 2008 which all started with his win in Melbourne. He is an extremely solid player and will be tough to beat. He prides himself on good preparation and seems to have grown comfortable with everyone looking at him as a Grand Slam champion. Another big year could very well be on tap for the Serbian.
Others to watch though not top contenders for the title include Tsonga and Americans James Blake and Andy Roddick. Blake got to the quarterfinals of the Australian Open last year before falling to Federer. Roddick’s been to the Melbourne semifinals three times.
Roddick has a new coach in Larry Stefanki, who has been around a long time and is someone who is very good at picking a player’s game apart and dealing with the goods he’s given rather than to try and completely change a player. For Roddick, hiring Stefanki was a good move. It could give him new spark and new ideas.
With Justine Henin retired, the No. 1 ranking on the women’s tour is up for grabs. Winning in Melbourne is a great way for Venus to take the first assertive step towards grabbing that prize.
As for Murray it’s not a question of if he will win a major, it’s a question of when and the when could arrive this year Down Under where the Scot could become Britain’s first Grand Slam champion since Fred Perry won at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 1936.